"It is my wish at this time to remind you that I have always believed, and still believe, that artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake"
Pablo Picasso, in a written address sent to a meeting of the American Artists’ Congress in New York.
(The New York Times, 19 December 1937, reproduced in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 145)
The present Buste de femme is instantly recognizable as Dora Maar, dressed, however, for a part which nothing in all her previous pictorial role-playing has prepared her, which she would never be called on to perform again, in a field of endeavor far removed from the reality of her everyday life. She is about to embark upon, allegorically speaking, a supremely demanding mission Picasso has entrusted to her. Girt in armor and ready to take up sword and lance, she has here become the incarnation of the archetypal fighting queen, heiress to Penthesilea and Hippolyta, Amazons of distant classical antiquity. This woman warrior moreover possesses, true to her purpose, symbolic nationalistic significance, as a figure who is both historical fact and the potently emblematic stuff of patriotic legend. Dora prepares to battle, pour la France, in the guise of a 20th century Jeanne d'Arc.
Armor and a resilient, fighting spirit may have saved this portrait of Dora during the Second World War. Like her medieval paragon, this latter-day Jeanne d’Arc suffered a trial and ordeal by fire—but narrowly survived. On 5 September 1941, the Nazi occupiers of France confiscated this painting from the Paris premises of the Jewish dealer Paul Rosenberg, who with his family had fled to America the previous year. Stored in the Jeu de Paume, it may have been among the 64 Picassos and other Rosenberg holdings included in 148 crates of plundered French art slated for shipment in August 1944 to Nikolsburg, Moravia. These pictures were loaded on one of the last trains that departed Paris prior to the Liberation, and might have disappeared forever, had not a small detachment from General Leclerc’s Forces françaises libres (FFL)—appropriately led by Lt. Alexandre Rosenberg, the dealer’s son—caught up with the train on 27 August, overpowered the guards, and reclaimed its priceless cargo. The Hollywood director John Frankenheimer dramatized this event in his film The Train (1964), starring Burt Lancaster, Jeanne Moreau, and Paul Scofield. The French government restituted the present painting to the Rosenberg family on 14 September 1945.
Dora had already done service in 1937 as the Weeping Woman (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 73), soon after Picasso painted Guernica. In the present picture she widens her eyes—in the shapes of glowing red cherries—as if mesmerized, staring in the face a challenge far greater than any she has ever known, a clear and present danger, and more of the same in the distant shape of things to come. Picasso had already made Dora his modern Sybil, employing her as a silent oracular presence whose facial expression of inner distress bespeaks her prophecy. And now she has heard a voice—just like Jeanne la Pucelle, as Jules Bastien-Lepage portrayed her in his famous painting of 1879 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)—not from God in this instance, but from Picasso. He has summoned her to take up arms, in response to historical exigencies arising from events of the day. Stunned at first, she here gathers that measure of resolve and courage required for the enormity of her task, and prepares to carry on as the selfless heroine whom destiny has claimed for its unknowable ends.
This is not a painting Picasso would have done during his pleasant summer holidays with Dora and their friends on the Riviera during the calm before the storm. As the decade of the 30s wore on, the artist coerced Dora's mysterious and inscrutably impassive visage into an increasingly agonized reflection of the ominous mood in Europe during the years of the Spanish Civil War, and subsequent events leading to the outbreak of the Second World War on 1 September 1939. Picasso painted this Dora as Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orléans, on 28 March 1939, not quite two weeks after Hitler and his armies entered Prague under the terms of appeasement granted to him in the Munich Pact, which had been signed the previous autumn. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, famously announced when he returned to London from the talks that he was "bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time... Go home and get a nice quiet sleep." Not for a moment did Picasso believe him.
Worse news soon followed—on 28 March Madrid finally fell to the unrelenting onslaught of General Franco's fascist legions. Barcelona had already surrendered two months earlier. The dream that Picasso and many of his friends, both Spanish and French, had held out for a socially progressive and culturally enlightened Republican Spain was dead and buried. The artist was quick to realize, as did many others among the left-leaning intelligentsia, that the whole of Europe might eventually be devoured by the fascist beast, nation by nation, each like the helpless bird falling prey to the prowling feral cat he painted several weeks after the present portrait of Dora (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 297).
Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso's other, more tenured mistress, had been the primary female presence in Guernica. The artist now preferred to spare her, as the mother of their child, from further encounters with danger and violence, making her instead into an alternative, personal symbol of quiet domesticity and peace. Dora alone would have to bear the brunt of Picasso's war-time depredations. "After World War II broke out," John Richardson has written, "Picasso came to portray Dora more and more frequently as a sacrificial victim, a tearful symbol of his own pain and grief at the horrors of tyranny and war" (quoted in Pablo Picasso, Femme au chapeau de paille, Christie's, New York, sale catalogue, 4 May 2004, p. 113).
Portraits of Dora predominated, in which she is often—as seen here—bust-length, or in many versions seated on a chair, in Picasso’s pre-war series of femmes au chapeau and femmes assises. Dora resumed her role as prophetess; like Cassandra of mythology and in classic drama, she would endure the frantic frustration of a seer who can foretell the future but is cursed by fate that no one will believe her—except Picasso, that is, who makes her the medium through whom he publicly reflects on events past, current, and future, albeit in veiled, allegorical imagery. He continued to alter and reshape her visage in new, astonishing if often frightening ways; Dora neither protested nor resisted, it was a role she accepted almost masochistically.
Dora's cherry red eyes in the present portrait allude to the Passion of Christ, the ultimate sacrifice and martyrdom; artists often included cherries in their table settings of the Last Supper. Jeanne la Pucelle suffered a similar fate; she was beatified in 1909, and awarded sainthood in 1920, although she had long been popularly celebrated as France's patron heroine. Dora was raven-haired, but here Picasso has given her red highlights to match her eyes. Jeanne d'Arc, although described in her trial records as having black hair, was often portrayed as a red-head, suggesting her acceptance of the fiery, bellicose spirit she required to achieve the redemption of her king and country.
Picasso completed six other images of Dora during late March 1939, including several on wood panel, one of which was painted on the same day as the present Buste de femme. Picasso in that version gave Dora yellow-orange hair; she is not, however, clad in armor. Indeed, she is wearing, as elsewhere in this series, Picasso's idea of a stylish contemporary dress, with decorative shoulder pads and lapels, which may have suggested the idea of transforming Dora into Joan wearing armor when he conceived the present painting, the only time he portrayed her this way. Coming from the artist who painted Guernica and abhorred war, there is clearly an ironic element in Picasso's depiction of Dora as Jeanne d'Arc. Someone must stand up to Hitler and fascism, but to resuscitate a legendary figure of yesteryear was hardly a realpolitik response to this crisis; Picasso was surely poking fun at those who hid behind the false security of such patriotic symbols and myths.
This portrait of Dora is perhaps Picasso’s distaff counterpart to the depictions of burly male types—hardy mariners and fishermen—that the artist painted and drew, showing them licking ice cream cones and sucking on lollipops during the summer of 1938, during his last pre-war holiday sojourn at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon in Mougins. Picasso appears to have devised this peculiar theme to comment on the futile, impotent efforts of Allied statesmen to curb Hitler's territorial demands. The negotiations that resulted in the Munich Pact began during the summer; the document was signed on 29 September 1938. Instead of tending to their true manly business, Picasso's sailors instead take time off for sweetly passing pleasures, of a kind that was all the fashion on the Riviera that summer, especially among women and children. A durable and lasting peace in Europe, Picasso seems to argue, would surely melt away just as quickly as the ice cream and candy in these mighty fellows' snow cones and lollis.
Dora Maar would remain the central, defining presence in Picasso's wartime paintings. Picasso painted both Marie-Thérèse and later his second wife Jacqueline about as often as he portrayed Dora, but the latter figures far more prominently in the overall profile of Picasso's art. Dating to the most historically critical ten-year period of the 20th century, Picasso’s Doras have exercised a far greater impact on the course of modern art. "Passionate, jealous, and quick-tempered, [Dora] pleased Picasso all the more because with her he could play all the games of a romance à l'espagnole," Pierre Daix wrote. "He enjoyed mastering her, forcing her to accept sharing with Marie-Thérèse and with others. Dora, for her part, was an artist as well as being attracted by the man—she fully appreciated association in an unprecedented adventure as modernism assumed the highest ambitions of grand art in the past" (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, pp. 253-254).